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The renowned NI neuroscientist launching new clinic offering ground-breaking treatment for depression

Belfast Telegraph - Life : Tuesday 30th March 2021, by Stephanie Bell.

From wanting to counsel people with mental health issues to studying how the brain works, Dr Kathy Ruddy is enjoying an exceptional career that has now come full circle.

A renowned neuroscientist, who is currently leading research which could revolutionise the recovery of stroke patients, Kathy is also set to launch a new clinic offering ground breaking treatment for depression.

Launching in April, it will be the only clinic in Ireland offering ‘Express Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) therapy – a version which is must faster than traditional TMS.

The exciting new treatment is aimed at people with chronic depression and anxiety for whom medication hasn’t worked and Kathy is confident that many years of research and testing has proven the effectiveness of this new approach.

She says: “It is a game changer and also the clinic will be a first for Ireland offering the Express rTMS therapy which can be delivered in a much faster time. “

Kathy (32), who lives in Banbridge and has one daughter Scarlett (2) and another baby due in June, is married to Giles Conlon (43) manager of the Ritz cinema in Cookstown.

She grew up in Pomeroy and was a pupil of St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon, going on to study psychology at Queen’s University.

She graduated with a first-class honours degree and was presented with The Times Higher Education Award for the UK Graduate of the Year which led her to go back to study for a PhD, changing the course of her career.

She explains: “With the PhD I moved from psychology into neuroscience and over the next three years I became more interested in studying the brain.

“I had always been interested in the mind and initially my motivation was counselling and helping people talk through their problems.

“That changed when I did my PhD as I then got to see the brain from an amazing viewpoint, scanning and visualising pathways showing a beautiful picture of what is going on there.”

After her PhD she landed a top spot as a post-doctoral research scientist at ETH Zürich, a research university in Switzerland renowned for its work in neuroscience.

Work Kathy carried out during her six years in Switzerland has formed the basis for new research she is now conducting in her job as head of her own lab at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin.

She was able to establish the Translational Brain Health Lab at Trinity in 2019 when she was awarded €712,000 funding from the Health Research Board Ireland.

A real high flier, her dedication to her work has seen her pick up numerous awards in these early years of her career.

In 2018 she was the winner of the Early Career Award from Neuroscience Ireland and also won the BrainBox Research Challenge, which provided her with a lab full of equipment to conduct research combining multiple neuroscientific methods.

At the end of 2019 she was presented with another Early Career Award, this time from the Psychological Society of Ireland, Division of Neuropsychology.

Today in her own lab she is leading a team of scientists dedicated to advancing knowledge on how the brain works using brain computer interfaces – namely computer games driven by brain signals.

Kathy explains: “We are hoping to train people to modify aspects of their brain function by reading signals from the brain.

“We are working with stroke patients using computer games to record TMS-evoked responses from their paralysed arms and then we are feeding that into the game to train patients how to make the responses in the muscle bigger.

“The aim is to improve movement in stroke patients.”

While work is ongoing in Trinity, Kathy has been able to come back to her original desire to help people going through depression by setting up her new clinic.

She has a wealth of experience conducting research using TMS in Switzerland, the UK and in Ireland and is convinced of its effectiveness, especially among people who have experienced chronic depression and anxiety for many years.

Rather than altering brain chemistry using medications, rTMS works by directly stimulating brain tissue to induce activity in regions that have become underactive.

A series of magnetic pulses are applied with a specific pattern to emulate the firing of brain cells in the relevant pathways, which leads over time to increased communication between distant areas of the brain.

Evidence from scientific research with thousands of patients has led the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) to conclude that rTMS shows “consistently positive outcomes in many studies and a good safety profile”.

They have recommended it for use in the UK since 2015. Yet, it remains unavailable on the NHS and can only be accessed privately.

It is typically considered for patients with treatment resistant depression, for whom medications have not proven effective.

However, it is also suitable for anyone with a diagnosis of depression, perhaps those who cannot tolerate the side effects of antidepressant drug treatments.

Kathy explains: “I have been using TMS from the very beginning of my research career when I was doing my PhD.

“It can have many different applications and the evidence for its effectiveness just keeps building year on year.

“I always thought about opening a clinic as there are limited options for accessing TMS in Ireland, and I wanted to make it available more locally.

“Research work can be incredibly stressful and I am looking forward to opening the clinic as I find this type of work more fulfilling as I know it is good for people and I can see people getting better.”

Put simply, the treatment works by stimulating the rhythms in the part of the brain which has become dysfunctional causing depression.

The express version can be administered over a 10-day period, rather than the currently recommended 4-6 weeks for standard repetitive TMS. This also substantially reduces the cost of treatment to clients.

Kathy says: "I have used TMS for research on hundreds of people including myself many times. I always like to test these things on myself. Since it has been developed there have been thousands of positive outcomes.

“It’s extremely exciting and I can’t wait to see the first clients coming in.”

Kathy married Giles midway through her six-year stint in Switzerland.

She also took on her post at Trinity and commuted between her home in Banbridge, Dublin and Zurich for three years.

Used to a hectic pace, she will continue her crucial research work at Trinity while also overseeing the new clinic in Portadown.

But as a mum to a toddler with a new baby on the way, she insists she has learnt how to strike a good work/life balance.

She says: “I had to develop good strategies to manage my work over the years. I’ve learnt to work smarter not harder.

“I do make a lot of lists! I also try to be flexible as possible with my schedule.

“I also really value how important it is to still have hobbies and do things for myself. I can’t fill up someone else’s cup if my own cup is empty so I do look after my own mental stability.”

As well as quality family time with Scarlett and Giles, Kathy has numerous hobbies which help her to relax during the evenings and weekends.

She says: “I love soap making and I grow a lot of our own fruit and vegetables and I love making sourdough bread.

“More recently I have revived the old craft of machine knitting which my grandmother used to do and I use this to make clothes for the kids.

“I do a lot of cycling with my family on the towpath.

“I always try to make sure we have quality time in the evenings and weekends.

“We also have great family support which we will need more than ever after our second little one comes along at the end of June.”

Before the new addition to her family arrives in June, Kathy will be focusing on getting the new addition to her work life off the ground.

The clinic launches in April and already has a number of bookings.

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